Thursday, February 17, 2011

The New President of the Virginia Convention Praises Rhode Island

On February 13, 1861, the newly-elected delegates to the Virginia Convention convened in Richmond to consider the question of secession.  The 152 delegates, a majority of whom were strong to moderate Unionists, chose John Janney as President of the Convention.  (As I mentioned in a post a couple of weeks ago, Janney was the moderate, pro-Union lawyer from Leesburg who was elected by voters in Loudoun County.)  After being elevated to the presidency of the Convention, Janney gave a prerequisite acceptance speech to the assembled delegates.  He praised Virginia's role in the founding of the Republic and sounded tones of sectional reconciliation.  Janney also made pleas to the Northern states based on a recent action by Rhode Island, and in doing so, demonstrated the centrality of slavery to the question of secession.

John Janney (courtesy of Wikipedia)

As Donald Shaffer recently discussed in a post on the Civil War Emancipation blog, the Rhode Island Legislature repealed that state's personal liberty law on January 25, 1861 in an effort to stem the sectional crisis then enveloping the country.  The personal liberty law, passed in 1848 and modified in 1854, was designed to subvert the federal Fugitive Slave Act.  As Shaffer noted in his post, "Rhode Island. . .  demonstrates how far some white Northerners were willing to go, on the eve of the Civil War, to protect slavery in order to keep the South in the Union and how little sentiment in favor of emancipation existed in the North at that eleventh hour."  This message was not lost on Janey.

The new Convention President asked that Virginia be given "all the rights, and all the privileges, and full equality with the citizens of the Empire States of New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio" and promised that
"we will scorn to demand one jot or tittle more than we are willing cheerfully to concede to the citizens of our little sister States, Delaware and Rhode Island."  Janney then heaped praise on the smallest state in the Union and implored the other Northern states to live by Rhode Island's example.  He exclaimed:
Rhode Island! Heaven bless her—a little State with a heart big enough for a whole Continent; and I pray God that the example which she set but the other day may be followed, and rapidly followed, by all her sisters of the North.
Janney expressed his hopes that the Confederate States could be brought back into the Union, but looked to Massachusetts to appease the Southern slave states by doing what Rhode Island had already done:
We may, I trust—and I trust in God we shall—so conduct our measures here, and bring them to such a conclusion, as that some of our sister States of the South who, for what they believe to be just cause, have wandered a little from their orbits, may be brought back into the old constellation, to give and receive light to and from their old sisters. I am not without hope that even old Massachusetts, when she comes to remember the past for she has a past as well as a present—when she comes to remember whose sword it was that was first torn from the scabbard upon her own soil, and never returned to the shield until her independence and liberty were secured, and remembers from whence he came, will waken up to a sense of justice, and, following the example of her sister, Rhode Island, will expunge from her statute book that which her own wisest and best citizens say is a disgrace to it. (emphasis added)
Rhode Island legislators, in repealing the personal liberty law, had taken a desperate action to appeal to reason in the Southern states.  And for a moderate like Janney, who was looking to keep the country together and Virginia in the Union, the move seemed like a way to calm Southerners' fears about the threat to their "property" and "states' rights."   Now, through the lens of history, Rhode Island looks morally unprincipled, and Janney was just tilting at windmills.

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